‘X’ marks the spot

Published 2:11 am Thursday, March 26, 2009

BOSTON — Xavier should have outgrown the stigma of being a ‘‘mid-major’’ team with its success in NCAA tournaments.

Right, coach Sean Miller?

‘‘How would you define that?’’ he asked.

Email newsletter signup

Good question.

With the impressive NCAA tournament showings by Xavier, Memphis and Gonzaga this decade — all still in the tournament from non-BCS conferences — ‘‘mid-major’’ is hardly synonymous with early elimination.

So when Xavier takes on Pittsburgh from the tough Big East in an East Regional semifinal Thursday night, the team with the better performance and not the stronger conference should prevail.

‘‘You can say we’re a mid-major, but we feel we’re an elite level program and that’s what we try to focus on,’’ Xavier scoring leader B.J. Raymond said Wednesday.

The Musketeers reached the round of eight in 2004 and 2008 and are in the tournament for the eighth time in nine years. Memphis lost in the championship game last year and is in the round of 16 for the fourth straight year, the longest current streak.

And Gonzaga is in the round of 16 for the fifth time in 11 straight NCAA tournaments, though it lost in the first round the past two years.

The Big East has a record five teams in the round of 16 from the group of seven that made the tournament. Pitt, the regional’s top seed, has been hardened by the physical style it encountered game after game. But that may not be a huge edge against a taller Xavier team, the regular-season champion in the Atlantic 10.

‘‘I don’t think there’s any advantages, really. You’ve got to play against good people, I think, in any conference,’’ Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said.

‘‘There’s 16 good teams left, very good teams. It may build in some ways character with the teams you play, but at the end of the day it’s who is playing well two weeks, three weeks after the conference (tournament) is over.’’

Pitt (30-4) had all it could handle in the first round against East Tennessee State before beating the No. 16 seed in the regional, then topped Oklahoma State 84-76. The Panthers are in their sixth straight NCAA tournament under Dixon but haven’t advanced beyond the round of eight in the other five.

‘‘No game is guaranteed in the tournament,’’ Pitt point guard Levance Fields said. ‘‘Being No. 1 seed, everyone is gunning for you. We think we did a great job taking the team’s best shot and making plays we needed down the stretch to win the game.’’

Fourth-seeded Xavier (27-7) advanced with wins over Portland State and Wisconsin after going just 5-5 in its previous 10 games.

And now it must face a Pitt team with an outstanding point guard in Fields, a powerful rebounder in DeJuan Blair and a dangerous scorer in Sam Young, who had 32 points against Oklahoma State.

‘‘Where it really starts and stops is to be physical ourselves, to not allow them to dominate us on the glass,’’ Miller said. ‘‘Our defense in general is what has allowed us to have 27 wins. It’s why we’re here and what we just did last weekend. Our greatest strength will be tested against, to me, the best at doing it.’’

But the Musketeers are bigger — three of their starters are taller than the Panthers’ tallest, Blair — and have greater depth. So Pitt’s regulars must avoid foul trouble.

Fields is most concerned about Xavier’s size.

‘‘They’re really tall at every position,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ve got to do a great job of boxing them out and not giving them second-chance opportunities.’’

Pitt is rested after playing just two games since losing to West Virginia in the first round of the Big East tournament on March 12. So any bruises from the battering the Panthers took against Big East teams should be healed by now.

‘‘Our practices are very intense, very tough. Guys leave bleeding most of the times just from drills we run. And it gets you ready for the games,’’ Fields said. ‘‘DeJuan had a little fall the last game, but he’s fine. So everybody is good.’’

Fields is the latest point guard to excel at Pitt. His assists-to-turnover ratio is second-best in the nation. He recently passed Brandin Knight for most assists in one season at the school.

In fourth place on that list? The current coach of Xavier, who played at Pitt from 1987 through 1992.

‘‘Coach did play there, everybody knows that,’’ Raymond said. ‘‘It’s the elephant in the room. But we’re just going to focus on trying to do our best and play at the highest level.’’

Even if they’re not in one of the highest-rated conferences simply because they’re not in a BCS football league.

‘‘To me, it’s so much more about your program than the name on the front of your jersey and what you stand for than whether you’re in this conference or that conference,’’ Miller said. ‘‘And I think college football and college basketball are completely different when it comes to that.’’